An Abbasid education

The Abbasids ruled a vast empire from Baghdad when it was the thriving capital of the Islamic world. For about five hundred years the city boasted the cream of intellectuals and culture, a reputation gained during the reigns of the Caliphs al-Rashid (809 CE), al-Ma’mun (833 CE), al-Mu’tadhid (902 CE) and al-Muktafi (908 CE).

An Abbasid education

By Mohanned Rahman

At the end of 2013, the latest Programme for International Assessment (Pisa) results were published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which are often considered as the most influential set of education test results in the world. It shows that East Asian economies performed best overall, claiming seven of the top 10 places across maths, reading and science rankings. This was then followed by the European and North American economies. However, right from the outset and by any index, it would have been plainly apparent that the Muslim world lags way behind most of the world. The highest placed Muslim majority country was Turkey at number 44.

In his book ‘Radical Reform’ (2009), Tariq Ramadan states that “official, state educational systems in Muslim-majority societies are virtually all deficient and in crisis. From Africa to Asia and throughout the Middle East, one can observe either unacceptable illiteracy rates or systems and methods that kill critical thinking and reinforce rote learning and social injustices. Reforms are urgently needed, for any opening or democratization project is bound to fail if populations are kept illiterate or functionally illiterate, or if their education is based on the lack of critical thinking, or reinforcing social divides, and on protecting the interests of the elite.”

If we start with a brief history of knowledge and learning in the Muslim world, even a superficial examination would reveal that the Muslim experience consists of a golden age in the ninth through thirteenth centuries. This coincided with the Abbasid period (750-1258 CE) which proved itself the golden period of Muslim learning. Today the crisis is so acute observes Ali A Allawi in ‘The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation’ (2009) that he concludes that “the creative output of the twenty or thirty million Muslims of the Abbasid era dwarfs the output of the nearly one-and-a-half billion Muslims of the modern era. In science and technology the statistics are truly daunting – and depressing. Using 2006 data…the entire Muslim world contributed 1.17 per cent of the world’s scientific literature, compared to 1.48 per cent from Spain alone.”

The Abbasids ruled a vast empire from Baghdad when it was the thriving capital of the Islamic world. For about five hundred years the city boasted the cream of intellectuals and culture, a reputation gained during the reigns of the Caliphs al-Rashid (809 CE), al-Ma’mun (833 CE), al-Mu’tadhid (902 CE) and al-Muktafi (908 CE). It was the world’s richest city and centre for intellectual development, being second in size only to Constantinople, with over a million inhabitants.

The reason that Baghdad had reached, and maintained such a pinnacle was because these caliphs had taken a personal interest in collecting global, ground-breaking scientific works. The Abbasid caliphs not only encouraged learning but also enjoined public discussion and founded schools where, besides Arabic literature, theology, philosophy, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, physics, astrology, astronomy and other branches of science were studied. People on the cutting edge of development and discovery all across the empire were brought together.


Let us now examine the system of education that was prevalent during the period of the Abbasid rulers. 

Under the Abbasids, the child’s education started at home. At the age of six, boys were admitted into schools and according to Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111 CE), “it was then that his formal education began.” 

Elementary schools grew up quite naturally in the peninsula. The schools were held in mosques, in private houses and sometimes in teacher’s own house. 

Besides the mosques, there were Maktabs which served as elementary schools.

The education given in the early Abbasid period bore some resemblance to contemporary church education in Europe. 

The curriculum of the elementary school consisted of reading, writing, grammar, traditions of the Prophet, elementary principles of arithmetic and some devotional poems.

Hitti says that throughout the whole curriculum memory work was specially emphasized.

Senior students studied Qu’ranic criticism, the science of apostolic tradition, jurisprudence, scholastic theology, lexicography rhetoric and literature.

Advanced scholars engaged themselves in the study of Astronomy, Philosophy, Geometry, Music and Medicine.

Co-education was the norm during the Abbasid period. Girls and boys of tender age were educated together in the same school.

The girls were expected to read the Qu’ran and acquire religious knowledge. Those who continued and became masters of theology and other subjects, took to teaching as a profession and we find some women theologians as great public teachers.

In his recent ground breaking work ‘Al-Muhaddithat’, Shaykh Akram Nadwi describes that when he commenced his research into the Woman scholars of Islam, he states “I thought there may be thirty to forty women,” but as the study progressed, the accounts of female scholars kept growing and growing, until eventually there were no less than 8,000 biographical accounts to be found. Such vast numbers truly testify to the huge role that women have played in the preservation and development of Islamic learning since the time of the blessed Prophet Muhammad.

The benefit of teaching was equally extended to poor; even slaves in some cases were admitted to schools. The system of appointing private tutors for children was in trend among the wealthy persons of the society.


There were three types of teachers under the Abbasids:

1) The first type of teachers simply taught the Qu’ran to children in the elementary school and was called a “Muallim”. The social position of the Muallim was not considered very notable. “Seek no advice from teachers of elementary schools,” acquired proverbial usage.

2) The second type of teacher may be called a tutor, “Muaddib”, representing a class which was engaged in teaching the sons of the higher strata as well as those of princes and caliphs. The class of teachers was superior to those of elementary schools. 

3) Third, came the professors of higher learning. They were specialists in the teaching of logic, mathematics, rhetoric and jurisprudence. The higher grade teachers were held in high respect by the public.

The teachers received their payment from the pupils. The pay of the teacher was very low. Professor Shushtery writes, “Teachers were supported by the income derived from endowments attached to mosques, shrines, hospitals and in some cases from the wealthy classes. Some of them received allowances from the Royal Treasury.”

At the age of 15 the boy who was acquired elementary knowledge usually set out for the next great town to attend lectures there. Scholars were used to travel and take long journeys in search of knowledge. There was no regular curriculum or a fixed syllabus. The founders of the schools had the right of appointment and removal of professors. In the choice of subjects, the teachers enjoyed perfect freedom. The state interfered only in a case where religion was thought to be in danger.

Experienced professors knew the text by heart and could lecture without referring to any book. 

The number of students varied from a few to thousands.

Ink and paper were kept ready to take notes from the lectures delivered by professors.

“In the lecture hall at Nishapur, there were 500 ink-stands kept ready for the use of students” (Shustery).

The lecturer was not satisfied merely with delivering his lectures, he also wanted that the students should follow and understand him. For this purpose he put questions to the students and asked them to put questions to him. Khuda Bakhsh writes, “Many teachers while discussing the subject, left their seat and mixed with the students.” Study in the high schools was thus not merely a hearing of lectures, but also a thorough drilling in the subjects. 

The lecturers were highly respected and followed by their pupils. The students after satisfying their teachers that they had learnt their subjects well, could ask and obtain certificates – ijaza.

The education of the Abbasids was not only confined to that of children in primary schools. During the reign of Haroon Al-Rashid (763-809 CE) and his son, a large number of richly endowed schools were opened, a university was founded, libraries were organised, an observatory was set up.


Caliph Al-Mamun founded an academy named “Bait-ul-Hikmat” or House of Wisdom, where the higher branches of learning were pursued. According to Professor Hitti, “Besides serving as a translation bureau this institute functioned as an academy and public library and had an observatory connected with it”. “Bait-ul-Hikmat may claim” says Totah “the honour of having been the first university of both the medieval and modern world, for it bore the torch aloft long before Boloqua, Paris, Prague, Oxford and Cambridge.” The college Bait-ul-Hikmah boasted of a library with a librarian who was a noted mathematician and astronomer.

Something should be said here about some of the translators. Many of the translators were also original contributors. Hunayn bin Ishaq (809-873 CE) was a Christian-Arab and a doctor. He translated the works of Galen, Plato, Aristotle and Ptolemy. He is credited with having written 31 books. His ability as a translator is affirmed by the report that he received about 500 dinars per month and that al-Mamum paid him in gold the weight of the books he translated. Other noted translators were Yahiya bin al-Bitriq (815 CE), Thabit bin Qurrah (836-901 CE), Quata bin Luqa, etc.

The real academy in Islam which became the model for later schools of higher learning was the Nizamayah established by Nizam al-Mulk (1018-1092 CE), the Persian Vizier of the Seljuq Sultan, Malik Shah(1055-1092 CE). He organised a system of education and started regular Madrasah and founded several important colleges and universities and endowed them adequately with munificent grants from the Government. To these the Caliph Mustansir (1242 CE) added a magnificent college with library and other arrangements under the name of ‘Mustansariyyah’. 

There were 30 high schools in Alexandria and 17 centres of learning in Spain with 70 public libraries. 

It can be concluded that the system of education under the Abbasids proved a turning point in the educational history of the modern world. In all the higher institutions of theology, the science of tradition lay at the basis of the curriculum and memory work was specially stressed upon.

To build a Madrasah was a pious act for the Muslims. Madrassahs were endowed with land and property, the income of which went for the support of teachers and poor students. Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217 CE) says that there were 30 schools in Baghdad and more than 500 students drawing daily rations from the funds of the mosque of that city. 

There were three kinds of institutions, which served the purpose of boys of different ages and calibre. The educational system during this period was not only confined to Qu’ran and Hadith, but advanced students had to study philosophy, astronomy, astrology, medicine, music, history, geography, mathematics, botany, etc.

Even after a century from the sack and destruction of Baghdad by the Mongol hoards in 1258 CE, the great Arab historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 CE) in his monumental work Al-Muqqadimah devotes a small chapter entitled: “A person whose first language was not Arabic finds it harder than the native speaker of Arabic to acquire the sciences”. In the late fourteenth century Arabic still had a uniquely privileged position as the language of knowledge. However, Ibn Khaldun was writing at a time when the Renaissance was just beginning to gather pace in Europe. In the next few centuries the fortunes of Arabic as the privileged language of knowledge would be eclipsed and after the slow decline in the later Ottoman period (1299-1922 CE) the sleep would be long and deep.


Last Mod: 23 Mart 2017, 22:48
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